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[DECEMBER 2018.]

That Appears To Be What Is In The Book

It’s no spoiler to say that Murasaki dies two-thirds of the way through The Tale of Genji, and Genji soon after. The events may be compelled by poetic logic, but not by causative order of plot; one law of the novel’s world is that disaster will arrive indifferently, at any time. Sudden illness or possession by baneful spirits descends as summarily as the frequent asides that someone or other had to change residence because their house burned down.

One of many poems recurrent in the characters’ minds is Kokinshū 861, traditionally taken to be Ariwara no Narihira’s death poem:

tsui ni yuku
michi to wa kanete
kikishikado
kinō kyō to wa
omouwazarishi wo

Long ago I heard
that this is the road we must all
travel in the end,
but I never thought it might
be yesterday or today.

Donald Keene notes that this last line

presents a problem: would it not have been more natural to say instead “today or tomorrow”? Some scholars suggest that the line actually means “until yesterday I never thought it might be today”; others believe it was merely an elaborate way of saying “right about now.”

To me the line is saying something tragic about hindsight bias. We didn’t expect the unthinkable yesterday, because it was unthinkable, and of course our expectation was borne out. We didn’t expect the unthinkable today, because it was unthinkable.

The life of Genji serves to familiarize us with the world of the Heian court: that steep hierarchy of rank, horror of blunt statement, Buddhist aversion to worldly attachments alongside political intrigue and fathomless hedonism, exchanges conducted through intermediaries and allusive poems, women who never show their faces in daylight but converse through opaque screens and glance over the tops of fans. There’s wonderful opportunity for fiction in all of this; at the same time, Genji is an ideal of style, tact and worldly success, and that perfection bathes his story in otherworldly light, making it seem more distant than time and space would alone. His death clears room for what turns out to be an entirely new novel, wonderful in a starkly different way.

In the last third of Genji we meet two noblemen of the younger generation, both sympathetic in their way but badly flawed compared to their predecessor. The introduction of lesser figures suddenly extends the book into a dimension that we students of the European nineteenth century would think of as novelistic depth. Having familiarized us with its social conditions, it now seems to project a crystallography of that society in the way of Fanny Burney through Henry James; within that structure, we observe characters tracing paths mutually determined by their own flaws and the conflicting imperatives of their world. As in Burney and James, it’s women and the lesser-born who are most in danger; the noblemen certainly suffer, but their sorrows keep within what we might call aesthetic bounds. That is to say, tears wet their sleeves. But it is not they who weep so copiously that “sea folk might well have fished below her pillow,” not they who risk death from grief or shame.

The lesson of Genji as a whole is that everything passes and beauty is woven in that passing. But the specific lesson that the last third of Genji at least entertains, if not endorses, is that the wisest choice would be always to ignore that enchanting knock on the sliding door; and the second wisest, having erred, to shave your head and take the nun’s path out of the world the moment you find someone willing to open the way.

I’m reading an article by a noted essayist/polemicist who is complaining about contemporary fiction. I love it when they do that! A certain book, he says, is full of ponderous sentences about how a certain part of a certain city “produces inequality, poverty, differential health outcomes, and other social metrics taken straight from the generally accepted web content dad.” I understand generally accepted web content dad to be a sly way of referring to Wikipedia. Isn’t it apt? How cleverly this essayist/polemicist can turn a phrase! Why can’t I write like that?

Then it’s time to go to San Francisco and get a quart of vanilla ice cream for R., a quart of espresso ice cream for me, which will somehow stay frozen in my backpack the whole way home.

for the love of god don't google "web content dad" in quotes as i just did

If I’ve gotten nothing else from my long sojourn with the English Romantics, I now have this Wordsworth-plus-America-the-band mashup as a permanent tenant in my head:

Like to a pagan suckled
In a creed outworn,
In the distance hear the laughter
Of the last unicorn—

Hardcover books, nicely made, came from the printer on a wooden shipping pallet, which I got to keep. Perhaps every time I write a book I’m going to get a free pallet? I had the great privilege of signing them all, biking them around to where they belonged, setting up a little ship station in the basement. The official publication date will be May 1 (they think?), but for the time being it’s done with and the worst case from here is that nothing happens. Which I find a fairly advantageous state of affairs.

Maybe "Make Me a Pallet On Your Floor" can chase the worms from your ears?

Never Reread Your Own Book

The thought of my continuing loneliness was unbearable, and yet I had managed to exchange sympathetic letters with those of like mind—some contacted via fairly tenuous connections—who would discuss my trifling tales and other matters with me; but I was merely amusing myself with fictions, finding solace for my idleness in foolish words. Aware of my own insignificance, I had at least managed for the time being to avoid anything that might have been considered shameful or unbecoming; yet here I was, tasting the bitterness of life to the full.

I tried reading the Tale again, but it did not seem to be the same as before and I was disappointed. Those with whom I had discussed things of mutual interest—how vain and frivolous they must find me now, I thought; and then, ashamed that I could even contemplate such a remark, I found it difficult to write to them.

The Diary of Lady Murasaki, tr. Richard Bowring

That is AMAZING.

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